VI. In the Present: Enemy Engaged

Peggy had to hand it to Bond: he was good at taking his cues from her. She's spotted Whitney as soon as she came on board, but also had not been in doubt that Whitney wasn't the one in charge of the ship, at least not yet. The crew didn't behave nearly deferential enough to her for that. No, the owner was probably the pleasant looking fellow wearing a cardigan who reminded her of Ivchenko, the doctor who'd later turned out to be working for Leviathan with Dottie Underwood.

He hadn't been one of Howard's guests; Peggy had memorized every one of them. Nor had she seen him before. But judging by the way everyone on board kept their eyes on him if they didn't need to look elsewhere to execute their tasks, this had to be the owner.

„I take it you want to start negotiations for a purchase very urgently", she drawled, using her best imitation of Whitney's film star voice. „But really, shooting down my helicopter was just rude. I'll have to add this to the price."

„Oh, the helicopter wasn't shot down", the man replied, and she immediately placed him on the US East Coast. „Madame Masque here demonstrated the long range uses of her heatwave dispensator to me." He chuckled. „The other Madame Masque, I should say, since there appear to be two of you."

This was when Bond was brought on board, which gave Peggy time to mentally curse Howard and his certainty Whitney had been building something to freeze rather than to melt. She'd just have to hope that her preparations and improvisational skills would suffice.

When Whitney made her butler taunt, Bond didn't react, instead staring stoically, as a good minion should.

„Leave it to you to get hung up on the help, Agent Carter," Peggy said, then, turning to the yacht owner, added. „That's who she really is, in case you're wondering. Equipped with one of Howard Stark's second rate devices, no doubt, in order to impress you. Don't tell me a man of your calibre is falling for her act."

„This won't surprise you, but that's just what she's been claiming about you. I must say, this really is my day. Either way, evidently there are two ladies competing for my favor and trying to sell me new technology." He turned to Bond. „What every man dreams of, eh? But do tell us your name."

„Bond," Bond said, and Peggy wondered when aliases went out of fashion in the service. Then again, the name was bland and average enough not to stick out. „I did security for Howard Stark." He leered at her. „Until I got a better offer."

„Let's hope the rest of your skills aren't as bad as your piloting", Peggy purred, keeping her Madam Masque persona in mind.

Whitney snorted. „Please. This is so painfully transparent. Amateur actors truly are an insult to the profession. You're not taken in by this, are you?" she concluded, addressing the man in the cardigan.

„What I am is reasonably entertained", he replied. Then the pleasant smile vanished completely. „But all entertainment must end. Well, I admit your little demonstration right now was impressive. But according to reports, so was hers on Stark's island. Never mind which of you is the genuine article right now; I'm a business man. Give me a business pitch as to why yours is better."

„A freeze ray has no practical uses for mass production", Whitney began, and Peggy cut her off immediately.

„Being able to freeze plants and cornfields makes for excellent blackmail material", she said scornfully. „On a smaller scale, it comes in very handy for locks. But then, a do-gooder like yourself wouldn't know about this, would they, Agent Carter?"

She was aware that she was sounding more like Dottie Underwood than like Whitney Frost now. But this man didn't appear to have met Whitney in her old life, and Dottie's way of using sing-song taunts every now and then had branded itself in her memory as one of the more disturbing speech rhythms she'd heard. It would do for the new Madame Masque.

Whitney laughed. „Plants? Cornfields? How small-minded you are." She looked at her device. „Heat is always better than ice", she murmed. „With enough heat, you could burn the world."

„But then, I wouldn't get paid", the yacht owner observed matter-of-factly, and Whitney sighed.

„You could melt the ice caps of the pole", she corrected herself. „If you threaten this, and prove you can do it, then the most powerful governments of the world will have no choice but to bow to your demands. The world will drown otherwise."

Still insane, Peggy thought. Completely so. Unfortunately, given what Howard had said about her genius, Whitney Frost might actually be able to create such a weapon.

„Surely your organisation would love to have that power, Mr. Blueland", Whitney concluded. Which organisation was she talking about? Leviathan? A resurrected Hydra? Someone else?

„Of course they would", she said out loud. „Along with a magic transport spell and the moon. Why don't you promise this as well while you're at it? Now I am a scientist," she continued, adressing Blueland, if that was the yacht owner's name. „I don't make promises I can't keep. I can't melt the poles for you. If you want magic, visit a circus. Otherwise, pay me, and you'll have working freeze rays at your disposal. As many as you can produce after you receive my specifications."

Blueland looked at both of them and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Out of the corner of her eye, Peggy saw that Bond, who'd been brought on board by two armed men just as she'd been, looked like he was ready to get the drop on the guard nearest to him and take the man's gun. Unfortunately, she couldn't let him just yet. They'd probably be able to take out a lot of the people on board, but not all, and it wouldn't make sense to do so before finding out more anyway. No, they needed to play for time. She hoped he understood that.

„A genius like yourself would undoubtedly be able to reproduce calculations and specifications right and now", Blueland said slowly.

„If I didn't want to get paid", Peggy said. „No free goods."

„She's no scientist", Whitney hissed. „I won't give you my invention for free, either, but I can provide you with diagrams for any technology you already possess."

„So can anyone with a good memory, I'm afraid, dear lady", Blueland sighed. „Which I assume a well trained agent has. Well, there's nothing for it. I'll have to cut this short. Since you," he said, with a nod to Peggy, „thoughtfully brought human leverage with you, I'll start with him. Your body and mind should be preserved for further use, whether you are Madame Masque or Agent Carter. His, on the other hand, are superfluous. I don't need another bodyguard. Madame Masque might, but if you are who you say you are, I assure you I'll pay you generously enough for you to find a new one. If, on the other hand, you're Agent Carter, well, then you might wish to save this gentleman here from torture. As interrogations go, I'm afraid his won't be pleasant."

This was why she hadn't wanted any of the new recruits with her, Peggy thought. Nor Daniel, who'd suffered enough for her sake.

„That's not what I signed up for", Bond said to her. Which was how the seduced bodyguard he was pretending to be would react, but was he simply being in character, or was that a warning he'd break cover rather than endure pain for what hadn't even been his mission?

„I bet you didn't", Whitney said, full of cool amusement. „Nor did that glorified cook I had to shoot the last time we crossed paths."

The memory of Ana's crumpled form on the pavement cut through Peggy's mind with a sharpness that still pained her. Ana had survived then, but she'd still paid a life long price, for no other reason than Whitney needing a distraction to allow her escape.

Peggy took the memory and froze it in herself, the way she did with every taunt she'd ever received when circumstances required it. She did not flinch. Instead, she focused on the here and now and made a decision.

VII: In the Present: Backup Plans

The electronic signal from the helicopter vanished only a minute after the transmission from the radio.

„I take it Miss Carter knows you had the helicopter bugged, sir?" Jarvis asked.

Howard gave him a look. „Would I dare?"

„In the interest of remaining employed, I prefer not to comment, sir."

„In any case," Howard said, „she did expect contact with either Frost or customers or both, probably coupled by a forced landing. Seems that happened sooner rather than later. And this, in turn, means you, I and the kids are getting to take the sub out on a spin, Jarvis."

Building his very own submarine had been Howard's latest project, and he had justified putting everyone through a crash course of how to manoeuvre a submarine as „building team spirit" to Peggy. The fact that it had gotten him another navy contract was incidental. The crash course had gone well enough, but Howard was willing to err on the cautious side for once by retaining the services of one of the submarine crew who'd trained him. Peggy hadn't cleared the man for field duty yet because she hadn't had the chance to look into his background, but then, Peggy had taken off with a complete stranger on a dangerous mission, so Howard felt entitled to make a few staff decisions of his own. After all, he was still bankrolling everything.

For the benefit of his guests, he'd made a big production out of his anger regarding the theft of a helicopter by the party-crashing Madame Masque and his no longer trusty bodyguard. Never let it be said that anyone knew how to throw a better temper tantrum than Howard Stark. This meant he also had the perfect excuse to leave the island in pursuit, though he pretended to do so on a motorboat; the submarine, after all, should be a secret from the various sinister and not so sinister parties their entire plan was supposed to attract. So he sent Jarvis and the kids ahead with the submarine while departing in grand style and broad daylight; they were supposed to rendezvous with him later, and then they'd get on the trail of Peggy and his probably captured helicopter while one of the kids returned the motorboat discreetly to the island.

At least, that was the intention. The sad reality included the submarine being nowhere in sight when Howard arrived at the rendezvous. Since by now, his imagination had supplied a great many unpleasant explanations as to why the tracking device he'd planted on the helicopter had simply winked out of existence and thus time was of the essence, Howard decided not to wait but to head towards the general direction where the helicopter had last registered, trusting the submarine, once it arrived, would follow; the tracking device on his motorboat, after all, was still working perfectly.

It didn't take him long to find the huge yacht. Unfortunately, it had taken the yacht's crew less time to spot him. Or so he gathered by the fact there were people on deck shooting at him.

And that was before the splash of the body dumped right in front of him.

Bond had no intention of dying for Peggy Carter, very likely double agent and at best deserter to the private sector. On the other hand, he considered himself able to cope with some torture as long as he knew the endgame was worth it. And this Frost woman definitely had to be stopped. Not because Bond thought her ploy of blackmail via melting the polar ice caps would actually work, but rather because he thought it wouldn't. Her tech might. But the Russians would simply laugh at her and start to build more ships for the Politburo members to live in while the rest drowned. The Americans would probably follow suit, and England would go the way of Atlantis.

This was not why he'd joined the service.

Women were sentimental by nature, though, so he feared Carter would go soft on him and reveal the truth once torture was on the table. So he tried to signal to her without giving the game away.

„This is not what I signed up for," he said, hoping she'd remember that actually, this was exactly what every agent signed up for. Even without a mask, he found her hard to read, and so he couldn't tell whether she had understood him until her lips thinned and she waved her left hand.

„Do your best," she said to Blueland in a bored tone. „It's not like I need him any longer."

This was just a tad too convincing, and he was back to considering her a SMERSH agent more likely than not, but be that as it may, he had no choice but to play along for now. There was no way a besotted and betrayed bodyguard would take this lying down, though, so he conjured up an indignant roar while lunging at her.

„Bitch! You swore you loved me!" His guards didn't stop him in time, and so he was able to push the gun he'd stolen under the life belts lying on deck before being pulled back. Hopefully, she'd spotted it.

„You know," she said viciously once he'd been restrained, „I've changed my mind. I had enough of his type when my fans were pestering me. Torture is too good for him. Let him drown."

The guards looked at Blueland, who nodded, with a raised eyebrow. „I think I've seen enough", he said, and snapped his fingers. „You heard the lady."

Some voices yelled that a boat was approaching, and not one of theirs. Most of the remaining crew got their weapons out and rushed to starboard, but Bond's guards still followed orders and dragged him overboard. While he was passing Carter, she didn't twitch, but she did look pointedly in the direction of the commotion. Which was how Bond deduced that the fool getting himself shot at while approaching the yacht in broad daylight with no weapons was probably supposed to be his getaway.